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Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless Paperback – September 26, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
You! Yes, you! Are you addicted to self-help books? Do you require "empowerment" to reverse your "victimhood"? If so, relax—you're far from alone. The Self-Help and Actualization Movement (the titular SHAM) is, according to Salerno, an $8-billion-a-year industry that depends on legions of repeat customers. Salerno presents a carefully researched—and devastating—exposé on SHAM's predatory and fraudulent practices and its corrosive effects on society. As former editor of Men's Health magazine's books program, Salerno knows the terrain from the inside. With judicious delight, he exposes the grandiloquent bluster and blithe hypocrisy of Dr. Phil (who, psychologists say, shames rather than helps his guests) and Dr. Laura (the preacher of family values who didn't know when her own mother was murdered), among many others. He cites examples of junk science, such as Tony Robbins's talk of "the energy frequency of foods," and charges that untested alternative medicine draws people away from proven medical treatments. In addition to detailing the raw facts, Salerno excels at pinpointing the self-abnegating strategy the self-help industry employs: namely, tearing you down in the name of building you up. And the positivity yields questionable results in any case. The self-help industry should not be dismissed as "silly but benign," says Salerno, and he documents how it has undermined psychology, education and health care in this blistering critique. (June 28)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
The all-caps title is an acronym that expresses Salerno's assessment of what it signifies, the Self-Help and Actualization Movement, which he subdivides into the camp of victimization and the camp of empowerment, both of which excuse inaction. The movement fosters victimization by telling adherents they can't escape their pasts, and empowerment by exalting attitude (e.g., self-esteem) over achievement. Salerno keeps both camps in mind as he dissects the checkered--especially in terms of qualifications--careers of SHAM stars John Gray, Dr. Laura, Marianne Williamson, Suze Orman, and in their own chapters, Dr. Phil McGraw and Tony Robbins, both creators of lucrative SHAM empires by copycatting lesser entrepreneurs' wares. Salerno asks why, if SHAM programs and treatments supposedly solve their purchasers' problems, SHAM enterprises thrive on repeat customers, and why the proposed next step, should program or treatment fail, is always more of same. In the book's sobering second part, Salerno powerfully argues that SHAM does real harm through its influence on love relationships, schooling, and health care. A wonderfully lucid, angeringly cogent polemic. Ray Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
The part I personally like the most was the one about the self-esteem movement in America's schools. As someone, who attended Austria's (discriminating) tier school system at a time when it was considered to be the 8th best school system in the world, and also the mother of two American children, who attended American schools, I have thrown quite a few temper tantrum about the American school system. While, in 12th grade, I myself translated Pliny the Elder's work from the original (7 errors in a translation of 300 words earned "barely a D", 8+ errors earned an "F") my children talked about traditional garbs of Ancient Rome during their Latin classes. ( really ? ? ? ) Even though Latin was not my favorite subject I was outraged at how the supposedly excellent school did not offer a more rigorous curriculum.
Quite fabulously, Salerno offers Chicago teacher Mrs. Daugherty's story. Believing that she is cursed with a class of 6h grade students with learning disabilities, Mrs. Daugherty looks into her students' files to check their IQ scores while the principal is off premises. She "discovers" that most of her students' IQ scores are 120+, near genius level. She therefore concludes that it is "her fault" that the students aren't learning. To make up for "her failures" Mrs. Daugherty imposes a rigorous curriculum, topped with vast amounts of homework and strict punishment for misbehavior. She achieves a 180 degree turnout. That surprises even the principal. When he asks Mr. Daugherty how she managed to succeed in such an impressive manner, Mrs. Daugherty confesses that she secretly looked up the IQ levels and then adjusted her teaching method accordingly.
(quoting from SHAM) "... Oh, by the way," he whispered as she turned around to retreat to her classroom, "I think you should know: those numbers next to the kids' names? It's not their IQ scores. It's their locker numbers..."
It's a brilliant story which illustrates the whole problem: Originally Mrs. Daugherty follows the adopted system of "high expectations will automatically destroy the children's self-worth." Only when Mrs. Daugherty believes (incorrectly) that she herself destroys these "gifted" kid's futures she imposes the toughest rules on (regular) children and (not surprisingly) succeeds.
Sadly, Salerno does not really analyze Mrs. Daugherty's psychological state of mind ; then again maybe it is not known. At least to me it seems quite possible that Mrs. Daugherty too was a victim of SHAM and therefore acted the way she did.
As for the rest of the book: Basically, the author makes his case that considering what vast amounts of money have been poured into self-help our society should see results, yet it doesn't. Instead we see a society depended on more self-help, which may not lead to anything.
While I agree with many parts of this book, I do not agree with its portrayal of Oprah Winfrey. Also, while I believe that Tony Robbins can be found guilty of writing extremely long-winded and boring books, which lead to people buying his action loaded (and much more expensive) seminars, I do not believe that all people Salerno names in his book are in the same group of SHAM artists. This oversimplification of throwing all self-help experts in the same category takes away from the book.
Still, the worst problem of the book is: What's the solution? Pointing out (major) flaws of a system is good but it should be complimented by a solution. If SHAM functions like a drug for its users (as Mr. Salerno kind of suggests) wouldn't a different powerful system be needed to "wean off SHAM users"?
Maybe Mr. Salerno will write a 2nd book describing alternatives.
Gisela Hausmann, author & blogger